How we got here

The first sentence is a gem: “At a time when so many books are being written, and so many of them are so long, the reader of any book is entitled to ask why it had to be written at all and, if the book absolutely had to exist, why it couldn’t have been shorter.”

That’s how Walter Russell Mead opens The Arc of a Covenant, subtitled The United States, Israel and the Fate of the Jewish People.

Why did it have to be written? Because it’s an informative, exciting and exhaustive (if exhausting) review of how Israel has fit into American foreign policy.

Maybe it could have been shorter. (It has 585 pages of text and 70 more of back matter.) I admit to skimming some parts. But most of it is fascinating. I found the chapters around Harry S. Truman and the creation of the state of Israel simply riveting.

The title, of course, is a play on words. The Ark of the Covenant was (heads up, Indiana Jones fans) a receptacle for sacred objects of Israelite identity. The arc of the relationship between America and Israel has been long and not always bending toward justice. But Americans have always had an almost sacred fascination with the place and the people – Jews especially, but Palestinians as well.

One of Mead’s major contentions is that it is simply nonsense to say that Jews control American foreign policy. Whether mouthed by pro-Zionists or anti-Zionists, it’s gibberish, totally devoid of facts and totally contravened by all evidence.

Commenting on the Trump disaster, he notes, for example: “If American Jews controlled America’s Israel policy, the U.S. embassy would still be in Tel Aviv, the annexation of the Golan Heights would not be recognized, and the United States would be pressing Israel on settlement policy.”

Instead, he says, “the attitudes and ideas that shape American perceptions of Zionism and the state of Israel are deeply rooted and widely dispersed in American history and culture.”

He calls the Jewish influence theory “Vulcanism,” after an imaginary planet called Vulcan that was once thought to orbit the Sun near Mercury. Like Vulcan, overpowering Jewish influence does not exist.

To demonstrate, Mead charts complex and evolving American attitudes toward Israel from the Puritans through Trump. Especially important is the era following World War II. “The cascading disasters and crises of the postwar years were so immense, so unprecedented, so complex, and so terrifying that it is difficult for people today to comprehend the psychological and mental state of our ancestors on whose heads the great storm woke.”

For instance, the blizzards of early 1947 in Britain were so crippling economically that the formerly great empire was forced to totally revamp its foreign policy, especially regarding Palestine.

In the turmoil that followed, the state of Israel was born. Ironically, Israel was able to survive early attacks by Arabs partly because of arms sales brokered by Arab-friendly Russia, which hoped to drive a wedge between Britain and America. American influence in this era was spotty, buffeted by many factions and nominally guided by Truman’s guile, determination and simple luck.

Mead’s writing is clear, often elegant and often droll. The Democracy Train is the American idea that American ideals are automatically transferable to other countries. This Great Miscalculation has misguided our foreign policy for decades. In pursuit of a lasting peace in Israel, it shows up as a quest for the Holy Grail, though it often seems more like a Hitchcockian MacGuffin, a distracting red herring.

You don’t have to be a history nut or a policy wonk to love this book. You just have to be determined enough to tackle a big and complicated subject. It ought to be required reading in the White House, in Congress, in the governments of all 50 states and in the campaign staffs of anyone running for public office.

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